If you’re looking for a business intelligence system, then one thing quickly becomes apparent. Namely, that there’s no shortage of purported business intelligence offerings on the market.
The trouble is, attempts to compare and contrast them often quickly founder.
Why? Because they define ‘business intelligence’ differently, have different target markets, and approach business intelligence in very different ways.
In other words, what ought to be a straightforward comparison of like-with-like business intelligence systems quickly turns into a debate about the nature of business intelligence itself.
At Matillion, we approach the problem differently. Instead, we suggest that businesses ask themselves two basic questions:
- Which core elements of business intelligence functionality matter most to us?
- Which broad ‘family’ of business intelligence solutions comes closest to meeting our needs?
Clarify these, and the rest of the selection process becomes much easier.
What functionality matters most?
The precise business intelligence requirements of individual organisations will vary. Some features will matter more to some businesses than others; some businesses may have little need for a particular feature, while others might rely on it heavily.
At the core, though, lie eight key requirements which are commonly found on most businesses’ shopping lists.
- Self Service reporting: The ability for users to access a report, and filter searches and reports using easy-to-use drop down menus and so on—and to do it themselves, without needing an IT department’s involvement.
- Drill down analysis: The ability to explore your data even further, drilling down into specific selling products or customer sectors in order to understand what lies behind the ‘big picture’ results that you’re seeing.
- Data visualization: The ability to look at data in a way that lets you spot trends, identify gaps, or exploit visual aids as a tool to communicate better. By making information easily digestible to everyone, data visualization can foster better decision making process.
- Dashboards: In short, dashboards are at a glance, situational awareness tools for a given user or role. They combine information from a variety of sources, and then present it graphically, providing at-a-glance information on progress against goals and objectives.
- Report scheduling: The ability to define a report, and then have it automatically sent by e-mail to a user or group, on a schedule. This isn’t the most glamorous part of a business intelligence solution, but our usage statistics show that it is, interestingly, one of the most heavily used.
- Microsoft Office integration: The ability to readily integrate business intelligence information into the world’s most widely-used office productivity suite, thereby leveraging your existing investment training and skills. In short, if your finance staff love Excel, why fight against the tide?
- Support for mobile devices: The ability to have reports and dashboards automatically delivered to users through mobile devices such as iPads, Android tablets, and smartphones. Formerly a ‘nice to have’ feature, it’s now a ‘must have’ item on most shopping lists.
- Security: The ability to control ‘who sees what’ with a business intelligence solution can be vitally important. In the wrong hands, information about which customers, or which products, are—for instance—the most profitable or fastest-growing can be highly damaging. You need to know the information, certainly—but that doesn’t mean that every junior salesperson needs to know it as well.
What sort of solution are we looking for?
Now for the second question: which broad ‘family’ of solution comes closest to meeting your needs?
Study the market, and you’ll see a number of options. Each has arguments for and against. Weigh them up, and you’ll be much closer to making the decision that’s right for you.
1) Enterprise-grade business intelligence solutions
These are the highly-capable and scalable business intelligence suites sold by the likes of Cognos (IBM), Business Objects (SAP), and Hyperion (Oracle).
For: Very scalable, even to the very largest businesses. Every feature you could ever want and more.
Against: They’re expensive and complex to implement and run. Often, you’re paying for tools that you don’t want or need, and which don’t get adopted.
2) Data visualisation tools
Simply put, these are the cool tools that let you visualise data via graphs and dashboards. Tableau and Qlikview are examples of successful products in this area..
For: They’re really powerful graphically, and make great looking, complex dashboards and data visualisations.
Against: You need to install them on individual PCs as they’re client server tools. They don’t always have all the basic reporting capabilities such as scheduling, printing and self serve report creation. Creating new reports is not an end user activity.
3) Report-writing tools
These are products designed for basic reporting tasks such as formatting data into printable reports. Crystal Reports—now sold by SAP—is an example of a report-writing tool.For: They’re cheap and effective for printing reports.
Against: They’re not business intelligence tools. They can’t analyse and drill down into data, and creating reports is time consuming and highly technical—often an IT task, and not for an end-user.
4) ‘Home-grown’ business intelligence solutions
Take your time, and it’s perfectly possible to use Microsoft Excel and Microsoft SQL Server to hand crank a business intelligence capability yourself. Or at least, kid yourself that you’ve got a business intelligence solution.
For: There’s little capital outlay involved. And you’ve probably already got what you need already.
Against: It can take a long, long time to implement—and even longer get to real ROI. And, once staffing time is taken into account, the true cost is usually higher than a business intelligence solution. Oh yes, and there’s little by way of essential features such as security, self serve reporting, scheduling, and mobile support.
5) ERP ‘packaged’ business intelligence or reporting functionality
These days, most ERP solutions have some sort of business intelligence tool bundled-in. So if you’ve got a recent ERP system, then there’s likely to be a business intelligence module that you can licence.
For: They’re designed to work with your existing ERP or core system. No need to worry about integration costs or compatibility.
Against: They can only work with the data that’s in your ERP or core systems, and ignore data held in other systems. They’re often inflexible, as well, and can be difficult or expensive to modify.
6) Cloud-based business intelligence tools
Business intelligence doesn’t have to be on-premise. Increasingly, there are web-based solutions which companies can buy into on a software as a service (SaaS) basis, and access securely over the Internet. Matillion belongs to this category.
For: Reduced risk of implementation because you “pay as you go”. Typically designed to be easy to use. No hardware or software required. Web-based, so accessible from anywhere. Usually faster to implement than traditional alternatives.
Against: Some cloud based business intelligence systems are just that, namely tools that happen to be in the cloud, and which may still require hard work such as data integration. And some customers have security/reliability concerns about the Cloud, although this typically isn’t the case nowadays.
Pulling it all together
So there we have it: the core functionality contained within business intelligence systems, and the major types of business intelligence system that are available.
In short, if you know—at least in broad outline—what you’re looking for, and know which type of business intelligence system suits you best, and you’re then much better positioned to make a decision.
At Matillion, we’re believers in round pegs for round holes, and square pegs for square holes. In short, if you’re a likely fit for the type of cloud-based business intelligence system which we offer, then we’d love to work with you to refine and validate that decision.
And if you’re not? Well, we wish you well on your business intelligence journey.